Moses Sheppard was born in 1775. He came to Baltimore, Maryland, as a young man and through his hard work and business intelligence, amassed a fortune as a merchant. He was a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and in keeping with the concerns of the Quakers, he had a strong interest in social causes, which he acted upon as the warden of the city's poor and commissioner of the prison. It was in these capacities that Sheppard became aware of the inhumane treatment of those with mental illnesses, or "lunatics," as they were then called.
Prior to the Civil War, there was no attempt on society’s part to manage or stop the symptoms of mental illnesses. Delusional, delirious, and aggressive behavior was particularly challenging, and those who suffered from these symptoms were often chained or kept in cages by their desperate families. Many eventually escaped, wandered aimlessly, and ended up in almshouses and jails where they were confined, restrained, and treated inhumanely, even brutally. A movement for humane treatment of persons with mental illnesses, originated in France and England, gained traction in America in the mid-1800's. As a result, a handful of progressive institutions on the East Coast started treating patients with therapeutic treatment in the form of warm baths, tranquil garden walks, moderate exercise, productive structured activities, and kindness and compassion on the part of the staff – very innovative for the time.
Dorothea Lynde Dix, a nationally prominent social reformer, took up the cause in the North East. In 1851, she visited Moses Sheppard to enlist his support in her efforts to convince the Maryland legislature to establish a state institution for the humane care of the insane. Sheppard was inspired, but his vision was of an institution free of political control, differing from Dix’s goal.
A man of action and decisive about the cause, Sheppard secured a charter from the Maryland General Assembly for the establishment of what was then called, The Sheppard Asylum. Final incorporation took place in 1853. To ensure the humane treatment of the mentally ill and the prolonged success of the asylum, Sheppard established the following guidelines, which are still in place today:
- Courteous treatment and comfort of all patients
- No patient was to be confined below ground; all were to have privacy, sunlight, and fresh air
- A curative environment, combining science and experience for the best possible results
- Only the income of the endowment, not principal, was to be spent to build and operate the asylum
As a result of the last stipulation, The Sheppard Asylum was finally able to open its doors and admit the first patient in 1891, 34 years after Sheppard's death.